It might seem a stretch to see a link between grilled cheese sandwiches and tending bar, but Sean Norman can connect the dots.
Norman co-owns MELTwich Food Co., a purveyor of gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches and other dishes shining a well-deserved spotlight on melted cheese, with his wife Leah in Niagara Falls.
Once upon a time, however, Norman was mixing drinks behind a bar in Port Credit, where he met a VIP in the world of cheesy comfort classics.
It was entrepreneur Tom Mavrou, who’d opened his own restaurant in the early 2010s called Melt.
The specialty was grilled cheese sandwiches and Mavrou’s knack for showing the versatility of this flagship comfort food made Melt a hot spot. Soon after, he opened a second location in Toronto.
One name change later, MELTwich was born, as was a plan to start franchising in 2015.
No stranger to the restaurant business, Norman watched the MELTwich chain spread like molten cheddar between two slices of grilled bread as he operated his own catering business and wine bar.
Impressed by the chain’s fast growth and success — and a lover of grilled cheese sandwiches himself — Norman considered putting his own stake in the MELTwich empire. But it wasn’t until the life-changing events of the pandemic that he and Leah finally did it, setting up shop in Niagara Falls’ Stamford neighbourhood.
Together, they serve food that’s been a balm for many seeking the familiar in an uncertain time.
“It’s a cool concept. We loved the food. The appeal is it’s different and unique,” Norman said about the draw to open MELTwich. “And Stamford is a great community. We really want to become that community spot.”
So far it’s working. Since opening last December, diners of all ages have kept Leah, who operates the store, busy with orders for the Southern-fried Chicken Melt, starring crispy fried chicken blanketed with American and Cheddar cheese, chipotle and buttermilk dill sauces, tomato corn salsa, pickles and lettuce — plant-based version optional.
There are tricked out Philly cheese steaks, too, including the Mac & Cheese Steak, an indulgent mash-up of sliced sirloin steak, Mozzarella, grilled mushrooms, onions, mac and cheese and hickory smoked bacon hugged by a brioche bun.
Burgers — always topped with cheese — and another classic vessel for melted cheese, poutine, are also options.
While the classic Quebecois combo of fries, gravy and cheese curds is available, so too, are versions topped with mac and cheese and bacon; spicy steak; chicken, bacon and buttermilk dill drizzle; or spicy Nashville chicken.
There’s even a dedicated vegan menu, and vegan cheese available to use on anything else. And of course, the creatives in the crowd can use the Classic Melt as a blank canvas to top with their choice of avocado, grilled mushrooms, grilled onion, chicken — fried or grilled — or bacon. Sandwiches can also be dressed with a variety of sauces and fresh veggies.
Rounding out the menu are hearty salad bowls for those preferring greens to bread, and grilled cheese’s soul mate, tomato bisque soup.
There’s also another dot to connect between grilled cheese sandwiches and libations.
“Here’s the best part,” Norman said. “We serve beer. We’ll sell wine because it’s Niagara. But what a great concept. You can come with your kids — they can have a (hand-spun) milkshake. You can have a beer with your Philly cheese steak.”
That wine list will include vintages from Burnt Ship Bay Estate Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, where When in Niagara’s Marcel Morgenstern is a partner.
For those who can’t make it in the door, delivery by Uber Eats and Door Dash is available.
Meanwhile, Norman plans to make MELTwich as much a part of the community as he can. He and Leah have already sponsored a soccer team and are looking for other ways to say thanks to Stamford and Niagara for their support.
“We really want to give back,” he said. “We want to be part of the community in a positive way. It’s a tight community.”
Author: Tiffany Mayer
Follow her on Instagram: @eatingniagara